About one year ago, Allen Lin, a 23-year-old college senior, fidgeted in a chair before eight members of the Communist Party of China. He stuttered and his voice jumped an octave as he answered questions about his grades, awards, leadership, and community service, which he’d tallied to 167 hours. One party member asked about Chinese president Xi Jinping’s speech at the 2014 Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing. By sheer luck, Lin had watched the speech and recounted all he could remember. He successfully managed the interview, the final step to joining the party.
Some weeks later, on November 28, 2014, at a full meeting of the 60 students in his engineering major’s party branch, Lin was formally voted into the party. He bent his arm into the party salute, faced the party flag, and took the party oath. Lin became a probationary party member. (He’s asked that his name be changed in concern for his future.)
“I was very excited,” Lin said recently. “Joining the party is not easy—of the 40 students in my class, only five were admitted.” Lin credits his admission to his top-notch grades, student government positions, and willingness to help his classmates, which earned him a strong reputation.
In 2014, the CPC’s acceptance rate was on par with the Ivy League—2 million applicants were accepted from a pool of 22 million. “Some Chinese have no shot of getting in, while others might have a 50 percent chance,” says Bruce Dickson, a professor of political science at George Washington University and an expert on CPC membership. An applicant’s family background, gender, rural or urban roots, academic performance, university ranking, and perceived loyalty all affect their chances, he adds.
China’s Ruling Party
In China, the Communist Party’s 87.7 million members, or 1 in 16 Chinese, hold nearly every top position in government, military, education, state-owned enterprises, health care, and banking. “If you are not in the party, there is definitely a glass ceiling,” Dickson says.
Thanks to a trove of statistics recently released by the CPC’s Organization Department, we’re learning more about members, like Lin, who make up China’s elite class. They are overwhelmingly male (75 percent), have at least a junior college education (43 percent), and are made up of farmers, herdsmen, and fishermen (30 percent), white-collar workers (25 percent), retirees (18 percent), and government employees (8 percent).
The composition of the CPC has evolved considerably since the party was founded in 1921 with approximately 57 members, most of whom were young men from the upper-middle and middle classes (27 students, 11 journalists, and nine teachers), according to scholar Ming T. Lee’s research.
Had it not been for British police, who in 1925 killed 13 Chinese in Shanghai when they fired on a crowd protesting foreigners’ abuse of Chinese laborers and the arrest of student activists, the party may never have expanded beyond the intellectual elite. The May Thirtieth Movement, as the social action formed in response to the shootings is called, was a turning point for the party.
“It was the first time the Communist Party started to become something greater than a loose network of intellectuals who liked reading Marx,” says Daniel Fried, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta, who wrote an essay on May Thirtieth literature. “It started becoming a mass movement.”
In 1949, when Mao Zedong’s Communist Party overthrew the Nationalist Party and took control, CPC membership approached 4 million. Afterward, CPC ranks grew steadily, drawing new members primarily from the exploited classes (peasants and workers) and the politically suspect, but useful, intellectual class. “The CPC had its pick of China’s best and brightest,” political scientist Stanley Rosen wrote, “varying recruitment targets each year depending on whether expertise or politics (the Expert vs. Red dilemma) was stressed.”
Intellectual participation expanded under Deng Xiaoping, after he declared intellectuals part of the working class, freeing them from political suspicion. By 1985, technicians, specialists, and teachers made up roughly 50 percent of new CPC recruits.
Universities are now the primary Communist recruiting ground—on average, students make up about 40 percent of new party members. There is a quota for new members based on a school’s ranking, Dickson explains: “They don’t want to take everyone.”
In recent years, the number of new CPC members has decreased. The leadership believes the party has become too large and unwieldy, analysts explain. “When Xi Jinping became president, he started to reshape the party,” says Zhang Bingbing, a 24-year-old master’s student and another new Communist Party member. “They want to limit membership so you have to be even more extraordinary to gain admission.”
The CPC admission process begins with a handwritten application. Bingbing submitted her five-page essay during her freshmen year of college. “I am willing to become a member of the Communist Party of China and demonstrate my loyalty,” she wrote, and continued to detail her studies, her history as a Communist Youth League member, her position as class president, and her understanding of the party’s history.
Soon thereafter, 10 students from Bingbing’s college class gave speeches stating their case for party membership. The class elected Bingbing and a male student to be “activists,” as those pledging the Communist Party are known. She’d passed the first hurdle. That night Bingbing, elated, dialed her parents. “I was picked!” she told them.
Training commenced. Bingbing was urged to broaden her community service work. She also attended the party class, where a political-thought professor lectured a room of activists about the party’s history, discipline, structure, and their political duties. Bingbing admitted that she often nodded off as the class dragged on.
Meanwhile, the party secretly evaluated Bingbing. A political adviser at her university directed party members to interview her classmates, roommates, and professors. What do you think of Zhang? Is she a good person? Is she frugal and restrained? Interviews finished with a simple command: Keep silent, or you will be in trouble with the party. Her friends and roommates obeyed. (Bingbing learned of these evaluations years later, when as a party member herself, she assessed new activists.)
Then came the party test—a two-hour examination about Marxism, Mao Zedong thought, Deng Xiaoping theory, and other ideologies and histories the party holds dear. Bingbing failed on her first attempt, but on her second and final try, she managed the questions. Soon enough, she took the party oath, and like Lin, advanced to probationary party-membership status.
When Bingbing was a probationary member, the university political adviser came to interview her directly. “He asked about my work and study and life,” Bingbing recalls. “He wanted to know about my background, hometown, and parents—what they did for a living and whether they were party members or from the masses.”
Bingbing joined one of her university’s party branches. Once a month, members met to study party documents and new national policies, or to climb the nearby Baiyun Mountain. At one meeting, the Communists shot group selfies.
When a year elapsed, and she’d done nothing to jeopardize her standing, Bingbing transitioned to full party membership. By tradition, she reread her application to her comrades. After reading, party members told Bingbing what they thought were her positive and negative traits, and then asked questions. Bingbing recalls one woman criticizing her for being careless and ditzy.
“Everyone has bad habits,” Bingbing replied to the group. “I will work to change my bad habits in daily life and in my studies.”
By the end of the meeting, she became a full-fledged Communist.
The Benefits of Membership
“The power to offer career opportunities has long been recognized as a central pillar of Communist rule,” sociologist Andrew Walder wrote about China 20 years ago.
After college, party members generally list their membership on résumés. State-owned enterprises ask about party membership on job applications. Even in the private sector, Dickson has found the majority of entrepreneurs, on balance, prefer to hire party members. “It’s seen as a valuable credential,” Dickson explains. This is true not only for the connections membership brings, but also the understanding that the party has examined and approved each member—in a sense, they’ve been vouched for.
Regulations require that all state-owned enterprises and private companies operate party branches, and even some foreign-owned companies like Walmart have them. Internally, the organization can serve as a fertile networking ground. And for entrepreneurs, party membership often brings better relations with local government officials.
The value of party membership is growing. “The number of members and the size of the wage premium for membership appear to have risen during economic transition,” a group of scholars who studied the economics of CPC membership wrote in 2008.
“It’s always better to be a party member,” Bingbing’s parents told her since the age of six, when she started wrapping a red scarf around her neck as a Young Pioneer of China, the party’s youth organization.
It seems they might be right.